Michael Twitty was leading a conversation on African diasporic food when the woman he was speaking to broke into tears. Twitty, a food writer, historian, and historical interpreter, had just explained that the word for “eat” in Wolof, a West African language, is nyam. The woman, a Massachusetts resident from an African-American and Puerto Rican family, had a lingering memory of her mother and grandmother repeating the word “nyam” during meals. But she never knew that the word was a direct connection to Africa.
For Twitty, who has devoted his life to tracing the roots of African-American cuisine, these moments of revelation are common—and electrifying. “You almost faint because you know who you are,” Twitty says. “No one can take that away from you ever again.”
Twitty has traveled from the American South to West Africa, using a mix of historical documents, participant-observation, and oral history to unbraid the complex culinary strands of the African diaspora. Through his writing and his workshops, he helps other African Americans understand the roots of their families’ culinary traditions, which centuries of slavery and white supremacy threatened to sever. Each bowl of okra soup or snippet of kitchen-table conversation is an ark from the past, a missive from the difficult, joyful story of how the community has come to be where it is today. “Between the pain and the celebration, the culture is created,” he says.
While Twitty’s work is especially meaningful to Black Americans, he says this kind of inquiry can connect participants of all backgrounds to their pasts, and to each other. “I see people really begin to connect the dots” between their family cuisines and those of other cultures, says Twitty of his workshops.
Like Twitty, Seattle-based chef Melissa Miranda has drawn on memory and kitchen observation to connect to her family’s culinary history. She worked with community elders to create a series of pop-up dinners celebrating local immigrant moms, then established her restaurant, Musang, based on her family’s cuisine. “The restaurant that we opened, it’s just Filipino food based off our childhood memories,” she says.